Desperately seeking dish discount

Linda Blackburne

Astronomy enthusiasts at Taunton independent school are trying to raise money for a Pounds 13,500 satellite dish just like King Hussein's, writes Linda Blackburne.

But whereas Jordan's ruler was unlikely to have been troubled by cost, the Somerset school has negotiated a discount with Weston Antennas of Dorset, which supplied the royal dish.

Trevor Hill, head of science at Taunton and a keen astronomer, has raised Pounds 7,000, but still needs Pounds 3,000 to match the discount price. If he succeeds, the 25-foot dish will not only allow pupils to see further into the universe, but also provide a link to other schools via the Internet, the global computer network.

The school, which organised an exhibition for Science Week in Taunton's municipal hall, was one of hundreds of schools, colleges and universities celebrating science, engineering and technology.

Among the 3,000 events organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and supported by the Government was an exhibition of the pioneering research by Bristol University into how bats use sound to find prey; a lecture at Derby University on cryonics - the freezing of human bodies - and an invitation to children from the Botanic Centre at Acklam, Middlesbrough, to build an environmentally-friendly scarecrow.

At Taunton school, there are already two 12-foot dishes made from kits, and Pounds 20,000 has been spent on astronomy over six years.

Mr Hill, who has become a fund-raising expert, has received cash from Imperial College, London, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, and the Association for Science Education.

The school has already done a lot of work on radio waves from the sun, and sunspots. Its greatest success was last July when pupils saw radio emissions from the comet Shoemaker-levy after it collided with Jupiter. Mr Hill contacted Jodrell Bank at Manchester University, and its Dr Michael Garrett put Taunton's results on the Internet.

They made national headlines. Mr Hill, a 37-year-old physicist, compared the excitement among the pupils to when he, as a 12-year-old, saw the first moon walk.

He is working on a more user-friendly system, as he can only teach two or three pupils in a small research and development environment.

The bigger dish will be more user-friendly - pupils will not need to go up on the roof to change its position, and they could be trained in two weeks.

Mr Hill, who worked at British Nuclear Fuels and the Central Electricity Generating Board before turning to teaching, spends about 15 hours a week on radio astronomy with the pupils, after school and during the lunch hours.

He believes it is an important extra-curricular activity which attracts just as many girls as boys, and, says Mr Hill, it is not elitist.

One pupil, for example, failed her maths and physics A-levels, but was very good at electronics and practical work, and went on to study communications engineering at Plymouth University. The university accepted her because of her work at Taunton.

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